How to compose music 101

05.05.2022 Ben Maloney Music education

Composition. It’s not the mysterious and exclusive endeavour it’s often made out to be. That received image of the prodigious, turbulent and ivory tower-bound genius certainly enriches the narrative for music-lovers, but it nurtures the feeling that writing music is reserved for a few extremely talented individuals. 

There’s no doubt that composing isn’t easy, but not for the reasons you might expect. You don’t have to be what you might consider a ‘natural’ musician - boasting perfect pitch, complete improvisatory fluency or an encyclopaedic knowledge of chords - to be a composer.

The art of writing resides in the ability to work your way through the challenges that arise in the creative process. And developing your ability to feel what the music needs is hardly less important than mastery of theory and technique, or an exceptional sense of creativity.

The great Danny Elfman, composer of the music for Tim Burton’s Batman and the theme from The Simpsons, couldn’t even read a bass clef when he began writing film music. Paul McCartney still can’t read sheet music - allegedly. 

It’s far from a by-numbers game. But that doesn’t negate the fact that there are numerous creative principles that can help you hone your craft as a composer and find your unique voice. It is possible to study composition, after all, and the majority of the great composers did - and do. 

Certainly these principles are worth bearing in mind if you find yourself struggling to get off the mark, looking for some supportive guidelines. If you’ve come here to read this, there’s a good chance you’re in precisely that position. 

Broken down into five loose stages covering everything from conception to completion, here’s a crash course in writing music. Designed for anyone who’s looking to create, from pop songwriters to composers of classical music. 

Although technical approaches to different kinds of music differ wildly, these creative approaches are fundamentally designed to inspire. To help you tap your creativity and nurture it in the best way possible.

1. It all starts with ideas

One of the biggest misconceptions when it comes to composition is the belief that it’s all about the musical specifics - chords, melodies, motifs, rhythms. No doubt these are important as the raw building-blocks of music, but in a complete piece these particulars are always underpinned by a larger scheme, structure or objective that the greatest works always honour.

These schemes are sometimes highly specific and technical in nature. For instance, most of Mozart’s 41 symphonies employ a rigid structural framework. But even works like this often have a guiding principle that governs the material. 

And, crucially, it’s often something quite loose and abstract. A work might look to explore certain intervals, say. It might be defined by the gradual accumulation and release of tension, or it might look to take the simplest idea and develop it into an enormous, intricate texture. It can be absolutely anything. 

This is just one of a range of compositional decisions that you make before you even start to think about putting notes on the page. These can not only help to steer you in a certain direction and make that blank page look far less intimidating, but also - as we said - form the basis of a great piece of music. 

You can also consider the context and overall purpose of the work. Is it being written to be performed? Will it accompany something? Will it fulfil a certain function? Asking and answering questions such as these can guide you from the most nebulous conception to a working plan, with set instrumentation, some compositional characteristics, and a structural layout.

The composition process starts conceptually - and this is great to remember when you’re struggling to get started, or when you do have a musical idea but aren't sure where to take it. We are dealing with art here, after all. And even the most deliberately meaningless artwork inevitably has some sort of meaning. Figuring out what that meaning is early on can give you that spark you're looking for.

There’s a great exercise that can help familiarise you with the challenges that arise in this phase, and the ways to conquer them. Try to compose an hour-long piece in five minutes. Sounds crazy, right? Of course that’s nowhere near enough time to write a notated score, but you can still think about overriding themes and attributes, and how they can be developed.

Unless you’re going avant-garde and breaking out entirely independently, this is where genres can offer a helping hand. They essentially entail musical conventions to follow, frameworks that can give your piece an infrastructure that you can then fill out in a unique way. 

So lean on them, listen to the classics, see what they do. Let all that give you a boost. You’ll be able to determine how long the piece should be, what kind of sections it’ll have, what kind of harmonic progression to use, and so on. 

It's so important to think about who you’re going to draw influence from. There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say, so don’t hesitate to think about composing a soft jazz ballad in the mould of Thelonious Monk, or emulating Olivier Messiaen’s characteristic organ works. Often making a conscious decision to compose in a certain vein can offer exactly the starting point you need to then go your own direction.

It should be said that many composers skip this stage entirely, starting right off with the music itself and proceeding from there. They might have a hook in mind, or a chord change, and they’ll develop that in whatever direction the music compels them to follow. 

Even this can often occur off the back of some conceptualisation, but that's by the by. The main think to bear in mind is that planning can - but doesn’t have to - be a useful springboard for the composition process. 

Now’s a useful time to assert a really important caveat that applies to this entire article: identify and then do whatever works best for you. Composition is all about finding and nourishing your unique creative offering. These are just guidelines, there simply to give you a nudge this way or that. As soon as you don’t need them anymore, cast them off.

2. Secure your resources

Once you have some kind of idea of what kind of composition you’re going to be dealing with, you can start translating theory into practice and making that piece a reality. 

You’ll be relying on a few things if you’re going to make this process feasible. Firstly, and most importantly, you’ll need to establish a way of actually realising the composition. For the majority of composers, this is where notation comes in, which broadly speaking can either be carried out by hand or digitally - more on this soon. 

But if you’ve decided to go about creating electronic music, then your means of realising your work will probably be a DAW (digital audio workstation) - a form of music production software. That said, notation can still function as a preliminary medium in this context, allowing you to get ideas down before translating them into an audio project. 

That is, unless you’re more of a sound artist, in which case traditional notation might not be of much use to you. You can always sketch your ideas in a more abstract way, as in a graphic score. 

Most composers will be utilising staff notation, though, so it’s worth taking a moment to consider the two main options that are open to you while we’re on this topic. 

Writing sheet music by hand is a good way to quickly set down ideas in the initial stages of composition. Sometimes nothing beats the old paper and pencil. You can draw a stave on any old sheet and add notes to it as you develop your ideas. But you can also buy manuscript or staff paper with staves printed on it. This’ll immediately tidy your notes and allow you to notate material quicker - and it looks great and encourages you to write.

When it comes to writing out a piece in its final form, however, hand-writing sheet music can be a long-winded process, even if you’re using manuscript paper. What’s more, things can get quite messy if you’re new to writing music by hand. But if your sheet music is for personal use only - i.e. not for someone else to read or perform from - then it only matters that you know what’s on it. 

If you are looking to produce sheet music that others will read or play from, then it’s well worth exploring music notation software, which enables you to construct a piece of sheet music digitally. There are three major advantages to this method: its efficiency, its presentation, and the ability to actually hear what you’ve written using digital playback. 

There are numerous programs of this kind that you can buy and/or download to your Mac or PC. The most popular (and expensive) are Sibelius and Dorico, but many others are out there - MuseScore is free and well worth trying out. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, so it’s worth taking some time to read about the various options and see which will suit you best. 

This software is a technological marvel, empowering you to produce sheet music of a professional standard and develop your ideas in the most practical way. But, as we shall emphasise further down, you have to be wary of placing too much faith in digital MIDI playback. 

How else can you hear your ideas? On real instruments, of course. Any good music teacher will tell you that composing with an instrument is far more advantageous than composing with software - particularly in the early stages or if you’re new to composing. A piano is particularly advantageous as you can work out your ideas more expansively on the keyboard. 

Composing this way encourages you to conceive and develop musical ideas in a natural and nuanced way. That’s what puts the ‘soul’ into music. It facilitates inspiration and spontaneity, and widens your creative horizons. It steers you clear of two things: first, the mechanical approach that MIDI often encourages, and secondly, the demoralising feeling that a tinny rendering of music leads to - that your work just doesn't sound that good. MIDI should be there to support, not lead. 

Don't expect your music to sound amazing through these programs. No matter how good digital instruments get, they’ll never better the visceral experience of hearing a real instrument played by a living, breathing musician. So if possible, get hold of an instrument to compose with, and learn to trust your playing. Ensure that you don’t stagnate, though - the motions of playing can sometimes force you into the same old patterns.

Finally, try to establish a space that’s reserved for your composing. Even if that’s just a headspace. Somewhere where you can get into the right mindset and let those creative juices flow. Preferably somewhere quiet and without distractions. 

Take some inspiration from Gustav Mahler’s composing hut, overlooking the banks of lake Attersee in Austria. Few of us will be lucky enough to have somewhere like this to write, but any dedicated composing space - even the most modest - will make it far easier to get into the zone.

3. Create some music

It’s about time we started developing some tangible material. As alluded to previously, you might find yourself doing this immediately. Perhaps you’ll stumble across a nice-sounding idea on your instrument, or a tune might just appear fully formed in your mind. 

But if you’ve been preoccupied with conceptual planning, then at some point you’ll have to start applying your vision to some actual music. But finding those initial fragments can be tough. Again, you’ll have to find out the best way to bring forth those ideas, whether that’s by playing until you land on something, or stringing something together mentally before transferring it to your instrument. 

One way or another, inspiration will come. And whenever and however it does, just go with it. Keep playing it. Try singing it. Experiment with variation, adding and adjusting notes. If it’s a motif, repeat it, extend it, combine it with similar-sounding phrases. If it’s a chord, string a few others into a progression. If it’s a tune, support it with some chords. In time, it’ll naturally evolve and expand - just ensure you keep note of everything you do. 

Trust your ear. If it sounds good to you, that means it is good – that’s all that really matters. The long and the short of composition is to create, and have faith in what you’re creating. Do that and your very best ideas will come. This is why it’s so important to rely on an instrument and avoid playback as much as you can, especially at this stage. 

In time, you’ll gradually work out the optimal way to get in touch with your inner creativity. There are no right and wrong answers here, only those that work and don’t work for you. Igor Stravinsky supposedly set the tempo before anything else and then took off from there. Edmund Rubbra, meanwhile, liked to come up with just one gesture, and then let everything flow organically from that.

Once you acquire some compositional experience, you’ll get to a point at which you can hear ideas fully formed in your mind and notate them straight away, without having to figure out the pitches and rhythms. But before you reach this level, you’ll likely have to rely on your instrument - or, if you must, digital playback - to develop your work. 

If possible, compose on the instrument you’re writing for. You’ll be able to hear straight away how the material will be realised in performance, and this will influence the way you shape your ideas. You should try to bear this endgame in mind as much as possible - the more you consider the performative nuance of music, the more likely you are to sculpt an organic-sounding piece. 

Although your skill level will doubtless restrict the complexity of material that you can play, it shouldn’t affect the kind of music that you compose. 

That’s where notation comes in. Now you might have already made a few sketches at this stage so that you don’t forget ideas after inspiration has struck. But if not, there’ll come a time when you have to start writing things down in order to make progress. 

Let’s say you have a series of ideas that you need to string together: a chord progression, a melodic motif, a catchy riff, what have you. Or perhaps your material is already starting to assume some kind of structure, but it’s getting too unwieldy. 

Whether your ideas are too big or too numerous, you’re going to reach the point where there’s just too much to keep track of mentally, and you’ll have to notate what you've done if you’re going to make progress and continue bringing your piece together. Unless you’re able to create entire symphonies in your mind, like some modern-day Sibelius

This leads us nicely on to stage four. Before we turn to that, though, it’s worth emphasising inspiration can’t always be forced. So if you ever find that those initial ideas just aren’t forthcoming, then it’s just not the right time. Take a break, come back later. At some point it’ll happen.

4. Cultivate the work 

This is probably the most substantial, important stage in the process. It requires the most effort, it takes the longest, and it’s make-or-break. It’s what you do at this point that determines the real course and quality of your work. This is arguably where the real art of composition resides.

Your mission is to assemble your composed material and sculpt it into a musical artwork. This means cultivating your creation as though it were a living entity, ushering it from its embryonic form to completion. The quality of a work can be measured by the way that it progresses on this journey. 

The only thing all great pieces of music have in common is that they achieve what they set out to do. They respond successfully to the musical forces unleashed by their own form. Your job is to identify these challenges, envisage their solution, and construct a piece that effects that solution. 

A significant dimension of this process is not necessarily musical, but artistic. You have to sense what the composition needs, where it must go, what should happen when. And this often has little to do with technical concerns. Those are the other side of the coin, getting involved when it comes to translating these visions into actual music. But those nuts and bolts can be far more easily applied when you think about the bigger picture first.

This part of the journey is all about perspiration, as opposed to inspiration. Again, that received notion of the naturally gifted composer - or the magical art of writing music - is misleading. Anyone who has actually done it knows that it involves a great deal of craftsmanship and toil. They don’t call it a ‘work’ for nothing. 

Think of Michelangelo chipping away at the marble. Seeing the angel inside it is one thing, but freeing it through hours of labour is another. Anyone can string together a functional chord scheme or a catchy hook, but creating a fully fledged piece of music that integrates those smaller, constituent parts - that’s composition. 

And it entails identifying ways to join your ideas together and work them into a larger form that has a deeper sense of musical purpose. Each section, each passage has to seem as though it justifies the structure that it assumes, the direction that it takes and the material that it comprises. In doing so, it serves the effectiveness and quality of the larger work it’s part of.

So you must respond to the needs of the music, try to perceive its inherent, overarching logic as it gradually emerges through the development of your initial ideas. So frequently - and frustratingly - this contour will contradict the plan you envisaged at the outset, but at other times that can still function usefully as your North Star. 

Of course there’s no science to seeing that logic - composing isn’t a box-ticking exercise. But there are some things that you can try deliberately to help you do it. 

This is where established structural models such as sonata form or verse-chorus song structure come into their own, offering that framework to flesh out with your ideas. But you may want to strike out on your own to produce something more original. Even if you do utilise these templates, you’ll still have to cultivate unique material within them. 

Contrast is a real compositional asset (a vital aspect of both the forms named above) that can help to establish momentum and purpose. Try following, say, a loud and busy section with a gentler, sparser one, or juxtaposing fast rhythmic gestures with sustained, slow-moving ideas. Repetition, on the other hand, can also instil structure, grounding the listener with familiar content while helping them to make sense of new material. 

Look at all sorts of parameters to see if there’s something that could be manipulated with interest, or explored to a particular end. Try out a variety of combinations of instruments if you’re writing for a larger ensemble. Experiment with different approaches to texture and timbre. 

Don’t overlook the value of dynamics and metre as compositional tools. Careful handling of dynamics can really bring a piece to life, and even digital playback will pay attention to this. Just ensure you don’t make these kinds of changes just for the sake of it.

A composition can assume all kinds of attributes, and can begin to almost compose itself as these characteristics inevitably appear. Many composers describee how the work begins to lead them at this point. With any luck you might find that it leads you all the way to the final stage.

5. Apply the finishing touches

Eventually you’ll arrive at the point where your piece has assumed a reasonably definitive form. As far as those essential building-blocks are concerned - structure, harmony, pitch, rhythm, and so on - the piece is set. The notes themselves are there.  

Although you’re now close to the end, it isn't quite the end. Even when you’re satisfied as to the musical substance of your work, there are a few things still to consider, some of which can involve very significant compositional decisions. 

The first of them is articulation - slurs, staccato, tenuto, etc. You’ll know that this denotes how the music should be played, broadly aligning with the notion of expression. Of course performers carry a great deal of responsibility when it comes to this, but you shouldn’t sacrifice too much of your power as composer. 

This is because its a hugely important dimension of musical practice, determining the way the material presents itself. In this regard it’s deeply connected to the essential character of the music, and will have probably been playing a key role for some time. If you’ve been playing your piece, then you’ll have already been articulating it in a specific way, perhaps even without you being conscious of it. All this is mentioned here to ensure that you just include the necessary articulational notation - many composers neglect to. 

Dynamics have been touched on, but again it isn’t uncommon to forget about them until a late stage. They’re a criminally underrated parameter of music and have the power to turn a good work into a great one. Ensure that all dynamic traits that you’ve intuitively played or envisaged in the composition process are reflected in the score. Performers won’t have the same instinctive grasp of the work that you will.

Beyond this, ensure that the music is presented clearly and accurately. Are your time and key signatures correct? Have you notated rhythms as per the correct beat groupings? Are complex gestures voiced in the clearest way possible? Has the tempo been set? This is all housekeeping, but proper presentation is imperative.  

It sounds obvious, but - if you haven’t been composing on an instrument and within your technical capability - take a moment to consider whether the piece is even playable. Are the notes within range for all the instruments? Do some background reading on technical actions that are difficult to execute and check whether you’re asking too much of the player. 

That said, it’s extraordinary what musicians these days are capable of, so if what you have written is theoretically playable, then someone out there is guaranteed to be able to play it. But if you’re composing for a specific individual, then you’ll have to take their skill level into account.

These considerations relate to the ability of the performer(s) to interpret the notation you lay out in your score - essential for any performance. And this should likewise be an essential consideration through your practice, for what endgame is there for a composer, other than to have their work realised and heard in performance? Aim high. 

10 bonus tips for music composition

 

  1. Think about the kind of piece you want to write 
  2. Be influenced by other works and composers
  3. Establish a creative space where your ideas flow
  4. Plan the general contour and objectives of your work 
  5. Compose with an instrument at first, away from software
  6. Assemble and integrate your musical material
  7. Be guided by the overarching logic of your work as you perceive it 
  8. Explore a range of musical parameters with purpose
  9. Find your unique creative voice and nurture it
  10. Keep going

Get inspired with nkoda

 

‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ Those are the words of the scientist Isaac Newton, and there’s far-reaching truth in them. Even the greatest and most original of composers built on the achievements of the individuals who came before them, founding their work on compositional study and the absorption of influence. 

Discovery is at the heart of this. Finding music that inspires you is the fire that fuels the journey. Unearth styles and sounds that you want to emulate, conventions that you want to subvert, movements that you want to further, and you might feel just the spark that you need in order to start your creative journey. A jumping-off point, from which you can begin to exercise your own groundbreaking originality. 

Countless such discoveries await in nkoda’s digital music library, offering the world’s best music from the world’s leading publishers. Analyse Puccini’s melodic gifts. Learn what makes Copland’s populism so distinctive. See how Sofia Gubaidulina redrew the boundaries of the avant-garde. Figure out why Carole King was such a fine songwriter. All the composition lessons that music history can offer in one virtual space.

Bring it all within reach in moments by downloading the app and starting a free trial. See how nkoda’s resources can benefit your composition, and your musicianship in general. 

Want to read more about composition? For similar blog content, check out the articles on writing music for guitar, piano and orchestra.

Share this article

Related Articles

How to create a sheet music library

How to create a sheet music library

Get to grips with some of the perennial issues that surround that activity that so many of us weirdly love: organising music.

Music education
By Ben Maloney

How to compose music 101

How to compose music 101

Start archieving your compositional potential with the help of this 101 guide to writing music.

Music education
By Ben Maloney

How to best teach sheet music

How to best teach sheet music

There's no definitive answer, but there are a few things to bear in mind. This article should help you to figure out the right method for you and your students.

Music education
By Ben Maloney

How to find the key of a song

How to find the key of a song

Need help figuring out that key? You're in the right place.

Music education
By Ben Maloney